Sunday, September 7, 2008

An Act Concerning Religion, 1649

Much has been made, over the years, of Maryland's primacy in promoting religious freedom. One readily turns to the act of the General Assembly titled "An Act Concerning Religion" that was enacted in 1649 with the consent of Caecil, Lord Baltimore. Unfortunately, the act is not all it has been portrayed to be; indeed, it is vicious law that guaranteed freedom of worship only to those who espoused Christianity, and a narrowly defined Christianity at that.

Here's a URL link to the Act on the Maryland State Archives website that you can copy and paste:

For those unfamiliar with 17th-century English syntax, vocabulary, abbreviations, and non-standardized spelling, it is a bit challenging to read. I could parse it, but that would eliminate much of the fun and challenge of reading it. For those who haven't the time or patience, here's some highlights:
  1. For those who blaspheme, or who deny the existence of Christ or the Trinity and the unity of the Trinity, you are subject to execution and confiscation of all of your property. (That would mean that, unless other family members were willing to take them in, the perpetrator's spouse and children probably would have had to sell themselves into servitude.)
  2. Any decrying the Virgin Mother or the Apostles are subject to fines and, if unable to pay those fines, public whipping and imprisonment. The penalties increase with the second offense, and a third offense leads to confiscation of all property and exile.
  3. Anyone using religious epithets towards any other inhabitant also is subject to fines or physical punishment, the severity increasing with each offense.
  4. And those who fail to observe the Sabbath or who are drunk and/or riotous on the Sabbath will be similarly punished.
Apart from that, you're fine.

While it is true that none of the rights of Americans today are unqualified (e.g., you can't yell 'Fire!' in a movie theater and expect the First Amendment of the Constitution to protect you from prosecution and civil liability), it is also true that the rights we enjoy are the products of centuries of development. Democracy does not come ready made. Nor does it ship well.


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